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Sunday, July 29, 2012

the on line education revolution: its all about the design

Because on line education is booming there is a sense that something new and interesting is happening in education. In fact, what is new is the venue for education not the education itself. The courses that universities have always offered were meant to put people in seats efficiently so that less faculty could teach more students. On line education is simply an extension of that model. Arguments can be made for how this on line lecture-based model is better than the old classroom model, and arguments can be made for how it is worse than the old one. But, the new on line models really are not attempts to solve the real problems in education.

What are the real problems?

1.   What is being taught in universities is academic material derived from research intended to create students who can do research and become scholars.
2.   The idea that a university education is meant to produce students who can immediately go to work because they have been taught employable skills is argued against at research universities and typically is seen as a second rate educational model.
3.   The methodology of lecturing,  reading, essay writing and test taking, is in direct opposition to a learn by doing, experiential model of education where students go out and do things and learn from their mistakes.
4.   On line education allows, in principal, the creation of simulated experiences so that you don’t have to actually crash an airplane in order to learn how to fly nor do you have to bankrupt an actual business in order to learn how to run one.
5.    New models of education are explicitly rejected by university faculty, who, in general, do not spend much time on teaching and would rather do research. They don’t want new on line models that might force them to re-order their priorities. University faculty have a pretty nice life and will reject changes to their research-focused existence.

The real opportunity in on line education is to change what is taught and how it is taught, in order to create graduates who can be immediately be employed by a workplace that needs skilled workers rather than theoreticians and scholars.

We have been building on line learn by doing models for over 15 years. Universities are afraid of these  models because they are afraid of the faculty revolt that would ensue if these models became the standard. They are also expensive to build. Students love them however because they can get jobs immediately after graduation and because it is really a very enjoyable way to learn.

The mentored, teamwork, based model that XTOL ( uses depends upon building a detailed story and simulation of actual work experiences. This is not as easy to as it sounds.

To start, there needs to be one or more subject matter experts who guide the development. But, such experts are typically professors and professors want to teach theories. So, finding the right subject matter experts can be difficult.

Even more difficult is the design process itself. We use a team of people who have been doing this kind of work, in some cases, for twenty years or more. All of our senior designers have been doing this for at least five years and as far as we can tell it takes three or four years of apprenticeship to actually be any good at it.

The reason is easy to understand, Building an all day, full year, learning experience is somewhere between making a motion picture and writing a textbook. You don’t usually get it right the first time, in either case. Learning by doing is really how we learn and our people have been learning design by doing for a very long time.

Teaching others to do this is the next step in the education revolution.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Innovation is now impossible in high school curriculum. Thank you Bill Gates.

It is has always been frustrating to work on trying to improve education. No one really likes to see changes in anything they are used to. I have written about this over the years but now I am really angry. Who am I angry at? Bill Gates.

I have finally been able to come close to producing a very novel solution to some of what ails education. I am a year away form launching an on line mentored learn by doing computer science high school. What this means is that that after four years in this high school students will be immediately employable in the software industry. (They could still got to college or do something else, but they would be at a professional level in programming.)

Can I launch this school? No.

At least not in the United States. Why not? Because of Bill Gates (ironically).

Bill Gates has championed the Common Core standards movement in the U.S. And now, one by one, each state is moving towards adopting it, which means there will be no innovation in the high school curriculum in any way. A school like the one I am building cannot exist in the U.S. because it wouldn’t meet the Common Core standards, which are all about the facts everyone should know which were decided upon by the Committee of Ten in 1892.

A new, modern, learning by doing high school that doesn’t teach algebra or literature? Not possible. Teach students to build mobile applications rather than memorize facts about history? Not possible. Teach students to how to launch a business on the internet rather than to memorize physics formulas? Not possible.

Fortunately there are other countries in the world.

Are you proud of what you have created Mr. Gates? No innovation is possible now in high school in the U.S. and you did it.


(If anyone who knows a state where what I am saying  is not true, please let me know.)

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Joe Paterno, rich alumni, and imminent demise of college campuses

When I arrived at Northwestern in 1989 the President was a man named Arnie Weber.  He told me that his mother once asked him what he did as President. After he described his daily life to her she replied “ I didn’t raise my son to be a schnorrer.” (That word is Yiddish for “begger.”)
At a different moment he told me that the only real job of the President of a university was to provide ample parking for the faculty, nice dormitories for the students, and football for the alumni.
I am mentioning these things because I feel that a university-insider needs to put the Joe Paterno story in perspective. 
(For my non-US readers the short story on Joe Paterno is that he was a football coach at Penn State, regarded as a saint by nearly everyone, who turns out to have been protecting a pedophile on his staff from prosecution for years.)
We now are hearing about whether Penn State’s football program should be punished and we are hearing mea culpas from the Penn State Board of Trustees.
This is all nonsense of course. As usual the real problem is not being discussed.
Joe Paterno owned Penn State. The President of Penn State could not fire a man who was obviously too old to be a coach anymore and he could not fire him for protecting a pedophile. In fact he could not fire him for anything.
Now it may seem that this was an unusual situation. Not that many schools have football coaches who did as much to make an obscure university well known and whose influence and general goodness was agreed upon by all.
But in fact universities the size of Penn State always have a Joe Paterno. The man who runs the show may not be the football coach, but he is almost certainly not the President either.
The man or men who run big universities are the very wealthy alumni. Universities the size of Penn State need tremendous amounts of operating capital to support the sheer number of buildings and acreage not to mention sports arenas. As I mentioned in my most recent column, universities are money hungry and will overcharge students if they can get away with it because they need a lot of money in order to operate. Who supplies this money? 
Alumni donations are the number one issue on a college president’s mind. At Penn State it was Joe Paterno who supplied the money by winning football games and by getting massive numbers of people into State College, PA, six times a year to bolster the local economy.
Northwestern had a Joe Paterno when I was there. He wasn’t the football coach. He was just a local billionaire who got to decide whatever he wanted to decide at Northwestern. The basketball arena is named after him, the football field is named after him, and his not too bright relatives are on the board with him.
He decides what goes on at Northwestern because he can give large amounts of money to the university and he can push his friends to do so as well.
What I am describing is especially true at any private university which has no public money but it is true at state owned universities as well.
The President of the University of Michigan once mentioned to me that he was being forced to admit a student who couldn’t read because powerful alumni wanted him on the football team.
There are some obvious conclusions here. One is that college football is a bad thing. Now I say this as someone who happens to love college football. I even played college football. But really,if football issues drive out reason and fairness at a university (the players live like royalty in comparison to other students for example) perhaps it should be abolished.
People think that football produces revenue in terms of TV contracts and gate receipts and that is why it is there. The real revenue football produces is in the form of alumni donations which do indeed go up when the team wins.
It is alumni donations and the university's dependence upon them that is the real problem. Alumni at Penn State don’t know or care how good the Physics department is. Donations don’t go up when faculty win international recognition in research.
Universities are run by those who bring in money. At Northwestern, I brought in a lot of money for research. I got what I wanted when I wanted it. I understood how the system worked.
It is time to end this system. It is time to end the idea of the big college campus which is like a hungry animal that needs to be fed. 
Local colleges are about as important as local bookstores or local movie theaters these days. Their time is over.
Education, like anything else these days, can be done without physical locations.
Unfortunately, on line education is awful. The reason for that is simple. The physical model of education (large lectures halls and long lectures -- a money saving idea if ever there were one) still serves as the model for on line education. But it won’t for long.
Penn State is doomed, not because of Joe Paterno but because the physical campus and alumni network that controls Penn State cannot last in the world of the Internet.
Campuses will go away. Get used to it. 
It is our job to build on line education that is better than anything provided on campuses now. This can and should be done.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Why are students willing to go into debt in order to pay large amounts of tuition in order to attend college?

Why are students willing to go into debt in order to pay large amounts of tuition in order to attend college? 
There are two questions here really.
Why does college cost so much?
Why do students want to attend college?
Let’s start with the first. Here are some important facts to get an idea about the costs:
Stanford University, as an example owns 8000 acres of very highly valued real estate. They didn’t purchase it and they don’t pay taxes on it but there are hundreds of buildings and playing fields and parking lots and laboratories and streets all or which require massive expenses to maintain. Full professors make an average of $188,000 per year at Stanford.
I am not picking on Stanford here. Its neighbor UC Berkeley has a slightly smaller campus and pays its faculty slightly less, but really they are pretty similar, except that UC is a state owned institution.
To run an operation of this size requires money, lots of it. Tuition does not actually even cover the cost. Universities must constantly ask for donations from alumni and rich people. In addition both of these universities are heavily subsidized by the Federal government in the form of research grants which pay astoundingly large amounts of overhead.
Even so, if they can get it they charge it, so like any business as long as there are customers who are willing to pay, tuition can keeping going up.  
The real question is why are students willing to pay? Couldn’t someone offer a cheaper alternative? Does college really have to be this expensive?
The first thing to understand about all this is that Stanford (I was a faculty member there once upon a time, but they are all the same really) is not about students. A student may think that these campuses were built for them and maybe they were originally but Stanford faculty are not thinking about undergraduate education. Faculty at places like that are in the research business and faculty members have no choice but to look for research money and then do the research that will satisfy the funder and then get more money.  This process does entail paying attention to one’s graduate students who are supported by that money, but undergraduate teaching is seen by nearly all Stanford faculty as an annoyance that one has to put up with and that it is best to buy one’s way out of if possible.
Faculty are happiest in the summer when the students have gone home and they are left with a beautiful peaceful campus in which to think great thoughts, work in their labs, and talk with colleagues.
So why do students go into debt in order to attend these institutions? A more interesting question is why undergraduate education is offered at all at places like Stanford and UC Berkeley (or Yale or Harvard.)
Stanford likes the income of course, but could survive without it. (There are respected universities that do not take undergraduates. Usually the general public hasn’t heard of them because they don’t have football teams or elaborate campuses. One is Rockefeller University in New York.) What Rockefeller doesn’t have, that Harvard has, are alumni who would scream bloody murder (and stop giving money) if Harvard shut down its undergraduate program.
If what I am saying is right, and believe me no faculty member would agree with me openly but most would privately, then why do undergraduates willingly go into debt in order to attend these schools?
In the case of Harvard, Yale, or Stanford, the answer is obvious. Saying you graduated from one of those schools, rightly or wrongly, will get you instant respect for the rest of your life.
But what about Florida Atlantic University, Elon College, Southern Connecticut State, Beloit College, De Paul University, or Texas A&M to name any of 3000 I could name?
Same big fees, and curiously, same curriculum more or less.
Now I haven’t mentioned curriculum to this point but students go to college to take courses right? At least that is the common agreed upon reason.
Now any professor knows that students are really there to get away from home, drink a lot, play sports and party on. But there are courses and students must come away with an education so it is all worth it right?
Now here is a radical thought: Sitting in a classroom, or doing required reading, and parroting it all back on a multiple choice test or in some research essay is not actually education. It is school, but it is not real learning. Real learning would involve learning to do things one will do later on in life. Rarely does one write a research paper, or run an experiment, or take a multiple choice test, much less do we listen to lectures. College prepares you for nothing in actuality. (Yale’s graduates may become investment bankers but they didn’t learn that at all, they studied Classics.) Colleges say they do prepare their students and pay some homage to teaching them to think, and there actually are some specialized programs that actually do teach students to do things. But for the most part, your average English major or physics major has learned nothing that he will use in his later life except at cocktail parties.
The faculty don’t care. They care about their research. If you want to learn to be a researcher, Stanford is the place for you. The curriculum Stanford teaches is meant to get you ready to take advanced courses which are the ones that faculty actually like to teach. They are preparing students to do research because they like research and that is all they know how to do.
Now this is less true of the smaller colleges and big state universities where there is less research going on, but even at those schools, the faculty desire to be researchers and they studied with researchers and they really want to try and get research grants and behave like their colleagues at fancier institutions.
So, in essence, they teach the same courses at Stanford as they do at BYU, or Northern Illinois.
What do the students get out of this? A big debt. A four year vacation (assuming they didn’t have to work while going to school) and not much else. Well, there is always graduate school.
Why do they put up with it? Because they feel they have no choice. Being a college gradate is seen as a big deal. It wouldn’t be seen that way if being a high school graduate meant anything at all, but it doesn’t. (And the peer pressure and parental pressure to go to college is enormous.)
The solution to all this: build a high school system that teaches what college should be teaching: practical experiences that will prepare you to make a living or know how to live. (I am quoting John Adams and Ben Franklin here by the way.)
This is why we need good on line universities (and good on line high schools.) When Stanford pretends to offer on line courses in order to get people off their backs they are simply doing what they have always done, ignoring the needs of the undergraduates.
It is time for on line universities that create real (or simulated) experiences through which students can learn to do things in the real world.
We will be teaching people to work in the software industry through some on line programs we are developing (see in the coming months. Stanford could do that if it wanted to but it won’t. The faculty at Stanford are willing to teach students to do research or to be intellectuals.  Teaching someone to be a programmer or how to open a business is beneath them. (I am not picking on Stanford here. This is true of any research university. It is also true of the other 3000 colleges in the US since their faculty typically haven’t had much real world experience to teach about.)
Now, of course there are exceptions to all of this, but as I said the real villain is high school. We can fix that by building an on line high school outside of the control of government (and book publishers and test makers.) 
In the mean time, my advice to students: think twice before taking on an enormous debt to attend an institution that really just wants your money.